The novelist Doris Lessing once said of British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true." For almost nine years he has governed as though he could mold reality out of statements alone, insisting for example that the terrorist attacks of July 7 last year had nothing to do with Britain’s involvement in Iraq when all the evidence suggested otherwise.
But lately the magic has been wearing off. The discrepancies between what Blair says and what is true have become so great and so many that his entire premiership appears set to implode under the weight of its own contradictions.
He has already promised to step down before the next election–due in 2010 at the latest. The issue now seems to be whether he will be able to choose the timing of his own departure or whether events will choose it for him. In mid-March the Economist and the Guardian–both of which backed him last year–called for his resignation.
As the co-architect of Labour’s shift to the right, Blair’s heir apparent, Gordon Brown, represents a shift in personality rather than political trajectory. Nonetheless, whenever it comes, Blair’s departure will be greeted heartily by the left. But the truth is that his tenure has exposed our inability, not just locally but globally, to develop a coherent and substantive response to those centrist parties that put a gun to our head on polling day and warn us that a vote for anyone else will let in the right. If Blair has taught us anything, it is that while the interests of these parties may at times coincide with ours, our priorities and victories should never be confused with theirs.
Two recent episodes in particular have made Blair vulnerable. First there was the "cash for ermine" scandal, during which he was forced to admit he knew that three wealthy men he had nominated for peerages in the House of Lords had collectively made soft loans of #3.5 million ($6 million) to the Labour Party. Blair knew about the donations, but neither the party treasurer nor the deputy prime minister did.
Second was his education bill, which despite Labour’s parliamentary majority of sixty-nine he could only push through because the Tories supported it. The bill would essentially privatize education and dump poor and minority children in the worst schools, prompting fifty-two Labour MPs to vote against it.
Viewed in isolation, neither of these events would have been a deal-breaker. But both were emblematic of Blair’s tenure. Between them they exposed his contempt for the interests of his most loyal constituency–the working poor–along with his distance from the party in whose name he governs and the degree to which he is embedded with conservatives and monied interests.